See No Evil

In a recent post Bill Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher, examines an argument an atheist might make about the existence or nonexistence of God in light of the “problem of evil”. What he has written is good as far as it goes, but the argument he examines is not, I think, one that atheists generally make.

Central to his argument is the concept of “objective evil”. This refers to the notion that “good” and “evil” are not mere conventions, but are valuations that exist, somehow, independently of any conscious beings. In other words, torturing little babies, which most of us would agree is a pretty evil hobby, is not evil simply because we feel instinctively and incontrovertibly that it is so, but because there exists a fundamental and universal property of “evilness”, of which such an act is an instance.

But “good” and “evil” are inherently valuative terms; as Dr. Vallicella’s imaginary atheist puts it, “good and evil exist only relative to conative/desiderative beings.” Any definition of evil must depend always upon the subjective valuation of some being or other, which would seem to be quite the opposite of the sort of objectivity we are looking for. So those who feel they simply must put good and evil on an objective footing do the best they can, which is to make them be concepts in the mind of God. Subjective, yes, but the subjectivity of God is, I suppose, charitably assumed to be about as objective as subjectivity can get.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we call God’s valuations “objective”: in other words, if God thinks something is bad, it’s no longer a matter of opinion, it’s just bad, end of story. (How we find out what God actually thinks is another matter, but if football players and members of Congress can do it, it can’t be that difficult.) Where does this leave us? Well, if there is no God — just us chickens, if you will — then we can forget about “objective” evil. There are lots of things that seem plenty evil to us, and we read about them every day in the news, but others may disagree with us about what’s evil and what isn’t, and there is no ontological basis for our saying that we’re right and they are wrong; there’s simply no “fact of the matter”. This is the atheist’s position, and it is a perfectly sensible and coherent one. We have our intuitions about good and evil, and there’s no reason not to live by them, but the whole notion of some “objective” standard of good and evil beyond our own consciences and conventions is just a lot of baloney.

In Bill’s post we read a hypothetical atheist’s statement:

I don’t believe in God or in an objective good and evil. Good is whatever satisfies an organism’s wants or desires and evil is whatever thwarts them. So if one animal has another for breakfast, then what is good for the eater is evil for the eaten, so that there can be no talk of an objective or non-relative good and evil. The fact that nature is “red in tooth and claw,” that life is at the expense of life, is just a value-neutral fact, neither good nor evil. Good and evil exist only relative to conative/desiderative beings. (See here.) But I will grant you that if there is objective good and evil, then God exists, and conversely. Now you are granting me for the sake of our little discussion that the kinds and amounts of evil in our world are inconsistent with the existence of God as classically understood. So if objective evil exists, then there is no God, and if there is no objective evil, then, as you maintain, there is no God. Therefore, there is no God! I am not presupposing the existence of God. On the contrary, given our mutual concessions, I have demonstrated the nonexistence of God!

Well, this gets off on the right foot, although I’m not so sure about the line: “But I will grant you that if there is objective good and evil, then God exists, and conversely.” (As noted above, it is only by convention that we might agree that the subjective valuations of God are “objective”.) But let’s go along with it for now. So if God exists, then, he gets to decide what is “objectively” good and evil, and furthermore, existing in the mind of God is the only imaginable way that good and evil could be “objective” at all.

Now the argument Bill wishes to refute is the one that says that given the fact of evil in the world, God as classically imagined could not exist — because he would never permit such things. But at this point we seem to have fallen into a contradiction, because before we can hand up any indictments on permitting-of-evil charges, there needs to be something that is indisputably — i.e objectively — evil in the first place. (You can’t charge someone with stealing bread if there is no such thing as bread.) But if the only way we can ratchet such concepts into being is by assuming the existence of God, then we can’t very well go around using them, in the next breath, to prove his nonexistence.

Bill is quite right about all of this, but he is missing the point. The idea is simply that given the classical notion of a loving and merciful Father, it is damnably hard to come up with a satisfying and consistent account of why he would afflict toddlers with esophageal cancer, permit tsunamis to shear away his worshippers by the hundreds of thousands, pulverize the pious with earthquakes, and so forth. The “objectivity” of evil really isn’t the issue here; it is simply the difficulty of being asked to believe in an omnipotent being, of allegedly infinite kindness, who keeps being so doggone nasty for no apparent reason. You don’t have to have proof of a Platonic standard of evil to appreciate that legions of decent folks are being made to suffer cruelly every day of the week, and it requires some truly astonishing doxastic legerdemain to square this blunt and indisputable fact with any conventional notions of God. That anyone can pull it off, let alone try to sell it to others with a straight face, boggles my mind.

So the “problem of evil” really is a problem, but only if you feel the need to insist on the existence of God (or, at least, on the existence of a God that gives a hoot about what happens to us). The objectivity of evil — even if that can really be put on a satisfactory conceptual basis, about which I have my doubts — is not the issue: that we see suffering as subjectively evil is sufficient, as it is we subjective beings that are called upon to believe in God. On the other hand, however, the nontheist’s position is simple, clean, and consistent: there are no gods, and no such things as “objective” good and evil. We just live in a world in which nasty things happen to those of us who are unlucky enough to get in the way. No symbolic logic is needed, because we aren’t trying to prove that God doesn’t exist. There’s really no need to bother.

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  1. And leaving aside, for now, that pesky Euthyphro problem…


  1. Kevin Kim says

    Interesting post! Just to be clear: you’re using “nontheist” and “atheist” as synonyms? I ask because I use “nontheist” in contradistinction to both “theist” and “atheist.” I’m not saying my own usage is either correct or widely accepted (though I’d argue there is a precedent for such usage); I just want to be clear on how you’re using the term.

    One of the essays I wrote, “Right and Wrong: A Nondualistic Perspective,” deals at least tangentially with this issue of “objective” evil (the essay made it into my book, too — p.150*). One of the commenters at Dr. V’s place comes close to my own view that, as in the case of predator and prey, there is indeed a fact of the matter that being eaten is bad if you’re the prey (all I have to do to confirm this fact is to ask you, while you’re being eaten, whether you’re enjoying the experience), but that, at the same time, the badness of the situation depends on a relationship between predator and prey. This is consistent with the Buddhist notion that good and evil are dependently co-arisen: they’re plenty real, but they arise from, and are absolutely dependent on, a given situation.

    Your above example re: torturing babies was also consonant with the example in my essay re: sexually molesting children. Such a thing is never good. But the point I was making in my essay was that the evil of that act, far from being ingrained in the cosmos as some sort of ethical principle, depends for its force on the existence of a host of other phenomena: you have to have human children and adults, for example, as well as a concept of sex and of molestation. This dovetails with what you said above re: bread’s having to exist before you can accuse someone of stealing it, though I’ll note that the objective existence of bread (or any other phenomenon) doesn’t immediately imply the existence of God. What’s important is that the notion “bread theft is bad” intimately depends on the existence of bread, the concept of theft, people who both the bread, people from whom the bread can be stolen, etc.

    In all, I agree that most atheists probably won’t argue the way Dr. V’s hypothetical atheist is arguing. I suspect most atheists are content to note the classical problem of theodicy: reconciling an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God with the existence of suffering and — if we wish to avoid the word “evil” — malign intent.


    *Shameless plug. Shame compounded with actual link: Water from a Skull.

    Posted December 30, 2007 at 5:58 am | Permalink
  2. Kevin Kim says

    Brain fart: I wrote “people who both the bread,” which I’m still wondering at. “Both” should be “make.” Now how the hell did I do that…?


    Posted December 30, 2007 at 6:02 am | Permalink
  3. bob koepp says

    It seems to me that Bill’s discussion is concerned primarily with teasing out the strictly logical implications of what one of his commenters calls a “transcendental presupposition” — but without providing much in the way of reasons to think the presupposition is sound. Similarly, we aren’t provided with an explanation of why the relativity of valuation to “conative/desiderative beings” is incompatible with the objectivity of valuations. Relational properties can, after all, be objective.

    Posted December 30, 2007 at 10:00 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi guys, and thank you as always for the comments.

    First of all, Kevin – it was probably going to be something like “depends on both the existence of bread and people who make the bread,” or something. But who knows?

    I have added a sentence to the last paragraph of the post (I’m one of those heinous bloggers who edit posts after they are published) to clarify one more time that objectivity of evil is not necessary for there to be a problem of evil.

    Yes, I do use “nontheist” and “atheist” rather interchangeably. I suppose that’s sloppy, and I should pick one. I guess “nontheist” is more accurate in my case, though “atheist” is really what I feel like. I’ll think about it.

    Bob, I quite agree that subjective dispositions are an objective, predictable fact of the world. I don’t think that gets us all the way to “objective evil”, but that is arguably just a matter of definition.

    Posted December 30, 2007 at 12:11 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Oh, and by the way, Kevin, plugin your excellent book in every comment you leave here, if you like. I’ve plugged it here myself. Readers should buy a copy.

    Posted December 30, 2007 at 9:50 pm | Permalink
  6. Charles says

    Thanks for the clarification–it came sooner than I expected. This was the particular issue with which I was having difficulty:

    “So those who feel they simply must put good and evil on an objective footing do the best they can, which is to make them be concepts in the mind of God. Subjective, yes, but the subjectivity of God is, I suppose, charitably assumed to be about as objective as subjectivity can get.”

    I still don’t consider that to be objective. Maybe I’m being pedantic, but to me objective means existing apart from a subjective consciousness, and that includes God. At least for me it does.

    If by “objective” we mean to say, “subject to God’s ultimate judgment,” then it would seem rather obvious that there can be no objective evil without God. On the other hand, if by “objective” we mean truly objective–as you say: “a fundamental and universal property of ‘evilness'”–then I don’t see what this has to do with the existence of God. I have a feeling maybe I’m still missing something.

    Oh, and hey, while I’m at it, here’s another plug for Kevin’s book. I highly recommend it.

    Posted December 31, 2007 at 4:29 am | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Hi Charles,

    I expect that the theist would say you aren’t giving God enough credit here; we must recall that God is presumed to be the Creator of All and Everything, so that ultimately every objective feature of the world depends on God for its arising.

    A common problem for non-theists is a tendency to imagine God as some sort of super-person, in a rather naturalistic way, rather than as the transcendent ground of all being. I think you haven’t had enough of the Kool-Aid yet.

    Posted December 31, 2007 at 12:06 pm | Permalink
  8. Charles says

    Belated reply here (busy new year).

    Thanks for the clarification, Malcolm. Strangely enough, I am a theist, and I grew up in a very conservative classical theistic environment. So you would think that I would get the picture here. And I guess I do, on some level. I just don’t agree. Even if God is the creator of all and everything, he is still a subjective consciousness in my book. His judgment on things may be the ultimate judgment, but it’s not the only judgment. Human beings are free to perceive the world in any way they wish, and their perception may or may not be in line with God’s perception.

    Anyway, it boils down to me not believing that there is such a thing as true objectivity. I’m not talking about the old “if a tree falls in the woods and there is no one around to hear it, does it still make a sound” question–I believe, for example, that this keyboard I am typing on right now does exist outside of my subjective perception of it (even if I can’t prove that)–but when it comes to ideas, it seems obvious to me they cannot exist outside of a subjective consciousness.

    But whatever. I understand what you are saying, and I also understand that you are trying to explain a position that conflicts with your beliefs, so I won’t pester you about this any longer. I think I’ll go have some more Kool-Aid.

    Posted January 3, 2008 at 12:01 am | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    But when it comes to ideas, it seems obvious to me they cannot exist outside of a subjective consciousness.

    Well, I certainly agree with that, Charles — I’ve argued that position at length, and even got shown the door at Bill Vallicella’s for my stubbornness. But many, if not most, theists would say that God is what creates and sustains everything, that there is nothing in the first place without God, and that the whole Cosmos itself is nothing more than a thought in the mind of God. So putting evil on that basis, for those folks, is no big deal.

    But you’re right: these aren’t my own beliefs. I just think there’s no such thing as objective good or evil, and that’s the end of it. Very neat and tidy, even if it does lead to nihilism. But nihilism is nowhere near the problem it’s cracked up to be, and that’s what I need to clarify next, if I can.

    Posted January 3, 2008 at 12:41 am | Permalink
  10. Charles says

    Interesting. I guess I’m an odd sort of theist, then.

    Thanks for humoring me. I’ve enjoyed the conversation.

    Posted January 3, 2008 at 8:09 am | Permalink